The Color of Water: Novel Summary:Chapter 1: Dead
Text: James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, Riverhead Books, 1996.
Summary of Chapter 1: Dead
Ruth McBride Jordan, the author’s mother, begins narrating her memoirs to her son, James. Her voice always appears in italics. She explains that she is “dead “to her family. She was born April 1, 1921, in Poland to a Jewish Orthodox family. Her name was Ruchel Zylska, but she became Rachel Shilsky when she came to America. As far as Ruth is concerned, Rachel is dead: “She had to die in order for me, the rest of me, to live” (p. 2). Her family said kaddish and sat shiva for Rachel when she married a black man. That is how they mourn the dead, and to them she was dead, because she left her tradition. She explains the Jews had a lot of rules to follow. Her father was an Orthodox rabbi who escaped from the Russian army, snuck into Poland and was married to his mother, Hudis, in an arranged marriage. Ruth calls her father, Fishel Shilsky, “hard as a rock” (p. 3). But her mother was “gentle and meek,” (p. 3) the only person Ruth feels she did not do right by. Her mother had polio, and part of her was paralyzed.
Commentary on Chapter 1: Dead
The book is a memoir written by McBride about his mother. The chapters alternate between her narrative in her own voice and James’s reflections and memories of her as he was growing up. The opening chapter is the beginning of a transcription of Ruth’s dictation that runs throughout the book. James is a journalist, and he is trying to find out about his own Jewish background. Ruth is irritated about having to be interviewed and says she wants to get back to her TV show. James repeatedly says how difficult it is to get his mother to talk about her past. Her family thinks of her as dead, and she, too, has cut off her family history. She has spent most of her life denying both her Jewish past and her whiteness, since she has lived with her black husband and mixed black children in a New York black community. The fact that she says Rachel had to die for Ruth to be born gives a preview of how suffocating Ruth felt her family life to be, with a handicapped mother, a cruel father, and a strict repressive religious life that isolated her from other people. Starved for love, she reached out to the black people who were her neighbors in Suffolk, Virginia.